PORTLAND &

The number of Oregon high school students taking the ACT college entrance exam shot up by 45 percent in 2007, but the average score earned by the state's test-takers declined slightly.

The Iowa-based administrators of the standardized exam said 6,401 Oregon high school students, from both public and private schools, took the ACT before they graduated, up from 4,400 last year. That works out to about 18 percent of the graduating class of 2007.

The ACT, a four hour exam designed to test whether students are ready to tackle college-level English, reading, math and science, is graded on a scale of — to 36. Oregon students earned an average score of 22, which is above the national average of 21.2, but a dip from the 2006 average of 22.4.

Oregon education officials said a decline is natural when the pool of test-takers has increased so dramatically.

Overall, Oregon students ranked 15th in the nation. And only a single student in the state got a perfect 36 score on the exam: Micah Tuttle of Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis.

Tuttle's mother, Sarah, said her son is planning to do a year of community service work in Israel before heading to the honors college at Arizona State.

The ACT, formally known as American College Testing, has always been popular in the Midwest, and in the South &

in Michigan and Illinois, for example, the state pays for all 11th graders to take the ACT.

But on the East and West coasts, many more students have traditionally taken the SAT. In Oregon, about 60 percent of graduating seniors take the SAT.

The ACT, however, is gaining on its traditional rival, as students jostle for any potential edge in the competitive college admissions process. The SAT has also been undergoing a bumpy facelift over the past few years, as students and colleges adjust to a reformatted, longer test that places greater emphasis on writing.

In Oregon, 14 school districts, including Beaverton, Forest Grove and Hillsboro, are now picking up the costs of the ACT for students. The latter two districts just started doing so in the 2006-07 school year, which probably accounts for much of the ACT growth in the state.

Deputy schools superintendent Pat Burk said Oregon could begin requiring all 10th graders to take a national college entrance test, like the ACT or the SAT, by the 2008-09 school year. Lawmakers set aside $550,000 this year to pay for that.

Tenth grade is a perfect year, Burk said in an e-mail, because it will "give students more time to think and plan for course selection, areas of content to focus on, and, most importantly, taking more rigorous courses in their last two years of college."

ACT officials say their test is a reasonably accurate predictor of how a student will perform once they reach college. In Oregon, 71 percent of high school students scored well enough on the English portion of the test that they'll likely earn a C or above in a college English course; and 52 percent of the state's test-takers did similarly well on the math portion of the exam. That's better than the national average of 69 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

And, ACT officials said, students who took higher-level math and science courses performed better on the exam than those who did not. Oregon Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo said that shows why it's important for the state to continue pushing for tougher high school graduation requirements.

Castillo also noted that black and Hispanic students scored significantly lower than their white peers on the ACT, posting average scores of 16.7 and 17.3, respectively.

Meanwhile, state officials who have been trying to stop the so-called "brain drain" and persuade more brainy high school students to attend in-state schools can take heart: Nearly 1,700 students said Oregon State University was their top choice, followed by the University of Oregon, Portland State, the private University of Portland and Western Oregon University.

The only out-of-state schools to crack the top 10 were the two Brigham Young University campuses in Idaho and Utah, and the University of Washington, in Seattle.